US Coast Guard spots Chinese warships off Alaska

Laura Zhou, South China Morning Post

Posted at Sep 15 2021 04:08 AM | Updated as of Sep 15 2021 09:00 AM

Four Chinese warships, including one of its most advanced destroyers, were spotted sailing in the waters off Alaska late last month as the Chinese navy steadily expands its range, according to photos posted on a Pentagon information service.

The photos taken by the US Coast Guard showed the four Chinese naval vessels shadowed by two US Coast Guard cutters in international waters within the US’ exclusive economic zone in the Aleutian Islands on August 29 and August 30, according to the Defence Visual Information Distribution Service.

According to the photo captions, the US and Chinese vessels had “safe and professional” interactions and their verbal communications were in accordance with international standards, including the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, a non-legally binding agreement to prevent clashes at sea.

The Chinese vessels were a Type 055 destroyer, a Type 052D destroyer, a Type 815 spy ship and a Type 903 replenishment ship.

The photos were posted online on Monday and removed hours later.

The Chinese defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

This is not the first time Chinese naval vessels have been seen in the waters off Alaska – in 2015, five PLA Navy ships were spotted in the Bering Sea off Alaska, in what the Pentagon said at that time was the first such operation to the region by the People’s Liberation Army.

Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing is expanding its warship fleet as part of a military modernisation drive.

In 2019 alone, it launched two dozen large warships, from destroyers to huge amphibious landing docks and corvettes, and last year three Type 055 stealth destroyers – the world’s second-most powerful warship – entered service.

Yue Gang, a retired PLA colonel and a military commentator based in Beijing, said the August foray led by its most advanced destroyer close to US shores could be meant to show China’s rapidly expanding reach.

“It’s been six years since [the Chinese warships] last sailed to waters off Alaska, which could be a display of the new force of the Chinese navy,” Yue said.

“Big warships need to test their abilities to maintain combat readiness during ocean missions.”

A powerful navy with more advanced warships was also necessary to support China’s increasing economic presence around the world, he said.

Former PLA instructor Song Zhongping said the latest mission to the waters off Alaska was part of the PLA’s ambitions to build a blue-water navy.

Song said the Type 055 could conduct missions in far seas and could not be limited to neighbouring waters.

“China is now capable of far-sea operations on a regular basis,” he said. “The navy also needs to travel farther afield especially when China is building a strategic navy to carry out blue-water operations.”

Song said the Chinese mission was not necessarily directed at the United States.

But Yue said the presence of Chinese naval ships close to the US shore could be part of Beijing’s response to Washington’s increasing activities near Chinese waters, particularly in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

Split between US and Russian control, the Aleutian Islands is a chain of large volcanic islands and smaller islands and hosts America’s air and naval bases.

It is also part of the strategically important “first island chain”, from Russia’s Kurils to the South China Sea.
Earlier, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force confirmed that four PLA warships crossed the Soya Strait on August 24.

As part of their bitter geopolitical rivalry, China and the US have stepped up military activities in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, with both areas becoming potential military flashpoints.

Last Tuesday, the US Pacific Fleet confirmed that the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group carrying F-35 stealth fighters, was in the South China Sea to conduct maritime security operations as part of the US’ commitment to uphold a rules-based international order with regional allies and partners.

It was the first time the stealth fighters had been sent on such a mission and the exercise was to show the ability of the US’ forward-deployed naval forces to respond quickly across the region, the fleet said.

The US destroyer USS Benfold also sailed near Mischief Reef last week, a move Chinese defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian said was “further ironclad evidence of US hegemony over navigation and militarisation of the South China Sea”.  

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